If Richard Pitino can coach as well as he can talk, then Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague has hit the jackpot.
Pitino, the 30-year-old son of Louisville superstar coach Rick Pitino, is a real salesman. The new men’s basketball coach displayed a positive personality at Friday’s news conference, and that charm should result in the successful recruiting of some outstanding players.
I’ve attended many news conferences at the University of Minnesota concerning new head coaches in major sports, and I don’t believe anyone made a better impression than Pitino did when introduced as the successor to Tubby Smith.
I still believe that Smith should not have been fired, but that is water over the dam. Teague and company got lucky when they decided to interview Pitino, who was 18-14 record in his first year as a head basketball coach at Florida International.
The phone call Teague made Monday to Florida coach Billy Donovan asking for recommendations for the next Gophers basketball coach turned out maybe to be the best move during the search.
Teague hired two of Donovan’s assistants to be head coach at Virginia Commonwealth in Anthony Grant, who left for the Alabama job, and the current head coach at VCU, Shaka Smart.
Like Grant and Smart, Richard Pitino worked as an assistant for Donovan, and also worked as an assistant for his father at Louisville.
Donovan felt Pitino was definitely the type of coach Teague was looking for. Teague talked to Pitino for the first time on Monday, and was impressed enough to offer him the job.
Pitino not only got a chance to coach in the Big Ten but got a big raise, going from $250,000 a year at Florida International to a six-year contract at $1.2 million a year with the Gophers.
“The one thing I always said was I don’t try to be Rick Pitino, I don’t try to be Billy Donovan,” Richard Pitino said. “I just try to be myself, and I embrace it.
Said Teague: “We wanted to find the right fit; we got really lucky with this guy.”
At a news conference at Williams Arena, Pitino definitely impressed the media, boosters and Gophers employees — and me — with his maturity.
“I think the sky is the limit at this place, I really do,” Pitino told his large audience. “We’ve got to do a great job of recruiting. It always starts with that. Your’re playing in the best conference in college basketball and you’re going to school at one of the best universities. We have a lot to sell.”
Pitino met with the players before the news conference and made a great impression. Sophomore guard Andre Hollins, the team’s top returning player, said he didn’t expect any of the players to transfer. He said they were excited and happy to have a coach, and were eager to start preparing for next season.
University President Eric Kaler, one of the Gophers’ biggest basketball fans, described the search as “one in which you get the right person in the right job with the right skills at the right time.”
“The university, our student athletes and fans scored big in the hiring of Pitino,” Kaler said. “He will bring inspiration, energy and passion to our program and he will develop our student athletes on this Williams court and in the classroom.”
Time will tell whether Pitino can do what he did at Florida International, where he took an underdog team with only five scholarship players and posted a winning record, coming within a win of making the NCAA tournament. He also has an uphill battle to recruit the three star players — Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, Rashad Vaughn of Cooper and Reid Travis of DeLaSalle — who just finished their junior seasons at Minnesota high schools.
But this young man made a very good first impression on Friday.